The phrase that a picture can tell a thousand words held true for Ulster’s coaching staff on Saturday at Ravenhill. The looks on the faces of Brian McLaughlin and David Humphreys reflected the torment and torture that the rest of us were going through.
Ulster should have won this game by 20 points, and it almost verges on the absurd that the team spent the final minutes of the match defending their own tryline in real danger of losing.
Ulster sailed far too close to the wind and the soft points conceded made the heart miss a beat on more than several occasions and raised the blood pressure to an unacceptable level.
A classic tale of ‘white line fever’ overcame many of the players.
Nevertheless, it was enormously pleasing that the commitment to running, attacking rugby finally paid dividends as the boot of Ian Humphreys steered Ulster to victory.
Ulster produced plenty of rugby, often sparked by the rampaging drives of Stephen Ferris, to put themselves in scoring positions, but the killer punch was lacking.
In fact, the first half was marked more by the counterpunching Bath, who brought little quality going forward but showed plenty of courage and energy in defence.
The strange thing was that while there was a complete lack of composure in finishing off chances, Ulster really displayed patience and character in abundance by not panicking. A 15-3 deficit is not insubstantial, and a better team that Bath would not have let Ulster off the hook, but to the players’ credit the team kept cool and made their advantage count when Bath were reduced to 14 men.
The Ulster players will groan and cringe when they see the butchered try-scoring opportunities and the suicidal tendencies hinted at by poor decision-making, quick throw-ins, and missed kicks for touch. What matters most though is that it was a win.
Indeed, given Aironi’s extraordinary victory over Biarritz, four points against Bath has the appearance of a very good win indeed. It has opened the door and the chink of light means that Ulster is now in charge of its own destiny. As long as the team got off to a reasonable start, the fixtures have always been in our favour. Another win against Bath and at home to Biarritz would mean travelling to Italy with a potential Heineken quarter-final place within our grasp. Maybe even a home quarter-final — oh, it is hard not to start dreaming again! Not getting carried away is the big challenge for Ulster this weekend. The team is superior in attack, the defence is in good shape, and the confidence should be there. It is vital to not look any further ahead than 1.30pm on Saturday. Leave the speculation to the rest of us.
Very little has changed since the same match almost a year ago. In fact, there are even stronger reasons to have confidence in an away win.
Bath’s home record this season is wretched, confidence is low, and you just get the feeling that something is not quite right in the dynamics between the players, coaches and manage
ment of the team. Of course, so much depends on the resources at your disposal. The Ulster front five were already a superior force last year. While their Bath counterparts are simply one year older, Ulster’s front row and second row combinations are more experienced, talented and ready for this game.
While Shontayne Hape’s return to the team will give Bath a much-needed boost, the absence of the inspirational South African, Luke Watson, still leaves the back row underpowered, despite the admirable heroics of Lewis Moody.
Bath might play at the Rec, but they are very much on the rack. This is not the time for Ulster to show any sympathy. The place for handshakes and pats on backs is after the final whistle and, until then, utter ruthlessness has to take its place. The desire and determination shown by Andrew Trimble in his marvellous individual effort last year should provide a clear example of what is possible as long as the players continue to back themselves.
Ulster won by an emphatic 18 points last season — any sort of win will suffice on Saturday.